Lemon Hound 3.0

No new post this week, but I’m happy to spread the word that Lemon Hound, that lively online literary space, brainchild of the intrepid Sina Queyras, is back online after a long hiatus. Lemon Hound was one of the places where I first started writing How a Poem Moves articles (like this one on Karen Solie), and the site has always hosted new poems, new debates, and new articles that are worth your attention. Sounds like they’re getting a bit of help from Concordia this time, which will hopefully make the workload more sustainable for those (esp Sina) who run it, and they’re also open for donations so that we can contribute to the discussions it generates for a good long while. Check them out.

 

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Madhur Anand, “Especially in a Time”

Anand Cover

 

Poetry has always used other texts to do more with its small space: biblical allusions, or quotations from pop song lyrics, have been common in poetry for a long time, because they allow a poet to conjure or connote more than a stand-alone image or phrase. But recent years have brought about an explosion of poems wrought exclusively from other texts: centos, which are formed by shuffling together lines from other poems and/or lyrics; erasures, which pick a text and remove selected parts to reveal other messages; and other kinds of mashups, remixes, and found poems. The connection to contemporary musical production seems worth emphasizing – like hiphop sampling, these kinds of poetic techniques demonstrate a different kind of virtuosity, more akin to an archaeologist’s or a collagist’s than a traditional image-maker’s, though you still have to be able to spot a great image or phrase in order to make it work in a poem. If Michelangelo said something about uncovering the angel in a block of stone, then some poets are able to see an aardvark in the angel.

One question that hovers over poems like this is: how does the new incarnation reflect back, enrich, challenge, or renew its source text? I could probably scour the text of Moby-Dick in order to create a shopping list for my weekend (“a draught of a draught… of wet…whiteness…”), but that wouldn’t make it a worthwhile poem. What does the new poem do with its materials?

Madhur Anand has a PhD in theoretical ecology, and her book, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, is at home in the language of science – its vocabulary, subjects, and syntactical patterns. “Especially in a Time” is one of a number of poems from the collection that are, as she explains it, “composed solely from words and phrases found” in scientific articles she has co-published. These poems, then, are a kind of re-mix of biological research. In the case here the paper is called “Rapid morphological change in stream beetle museum specimens correlates with climate change,” by Jennifer Babin-Fenske, Madhur Anand, and Yves Alarie, which was published in the journal Ecological Entomology in 2008. Here’s the poem:

 

Especially in a Time

 

Wild populations recognize that the linearity,

the relative rareness, the major museums, or any area

which is known, is a surrogate

for proximity

 

Stream beetles, Galapagos finches, and Israeli

passerine birds are transformed

into an index of limited

available information

 

Elytral lengths, slope of the regression,

and mid-latitude precipitation

unravel the anomalies

 

A prolonged change is also under scrutiny.

 

— Excerpted from A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes by Madhur Anand. Copyright © 2015 by Madhur Anand. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

 

I read through the study that is being mined here (Madhur graciously provided a copy for me), and what struck me about the paper is how careful and tentative it is. Because it wants to be certain about what it is claiming, the essay is full of qualifications, admissions of speculation and incomplete data, and conjectures about mediating or conflicting factors. This may be a common trope in scientific literature – I admit I don’t read a lot of research papers in ecology – but in Anand’s poem that doubtful precision emerges centre stage.

The poem takes a hold of this idea in the very first stanza: “Wild populations recognize that…” a bunch of things “…is a surrogate / for proximity.” This is a sneaky way to unfold scientific language in order to indict the very sort of scientific project described in the paper. In other words, all of the ways we non-wild populations have to study the world, all of the practices at the disposal of science – isolating anomalies (“relative rareness”), coherent argument (“linearity”), broad comparative systems (“major museums”) – all of these techniques are merely substitutes for the knowledge by “proximity” that the “wild populations” have.

The second stanza continues on this track, noting that the collections of sample data from various species is really just “an index of limited / available information.” It’s worth pointing out here that Anand has picked some delightful examples to illustrate this point – the near-rhyme between “stream” and “passerine,” the quick tour around the world from the focus of her research to the ends of the earth and back to one of the centres of the ancient world. These choices bear Anand’s poetic fingerprints most tellingly — she could have just as easily chosen “gastropod size” or “introduced toad species” for this stanza, which are also mentioned in the article, but they’re obviously not as evocative as “Israeli passerine” or “Galapagos finches.”

This points to another aspect of poems that draw from other texts – as much as forms of archeology, they are also acts of curation, and in that sense they are closer in technique to “regular” poems than they might seem. “Surrogate” and “proximity” are a full paragraph away from each other in Anand’s source text, and so it is Anand the poet who has put them together. In a way every poet is drawing from a similar (if larger) lexicon of possible terms and phrases when she writes a poem, and so the constraint of drawing from a 5-page scientific essay is not so very different than the constraint of, say, forcing each line to fit into a 13-syllable structure or the demands of a rhyming sonnet.

I’m trying to make a point here about how certain recent “experimental” techniques strike me as being very similar in practice to other kinds of constraints in poetry like the use of rhyme, or meter, or syllabic count or whatever. Self-important poets and intimidated readers often see these practices as a radical departure from previous forms of poetry, but for me, “use only words that appear in this essay” is a kissing cousin to the directive, “use only words that rhyme with Innisfree.” This doesn’t diminish the delight at all – on the contrary, the virtuosity required to pull off the conceit enhances our delight, or at least it’s meant to.

Anyway, it seems to me that in “Especially in a Time,” Anand’s skills as a source-mining poet highlight the tension between the search for truth and the barriers to discovering it. I want to be careful, though, about super-imposing too much artificial “meaning” into some of the choices she makes, because part of the fun of a mashup like this is relishing the juxtapositions of scientific and quasi-poetic terminologies that don’t quite cohere. As the poem closes, Anand seems drawn to phrases like “elytral lengths” (referring to the hardened wing-cases found on many beetles), equally for their sonic richness and unfamiliarity as for their relevance for studying the effects of climate change on micro-populations. But we seem to be a long way from unraveling all the anomalies.

In the end we are left with “a prolonged change” that is “also under scrutiny.” It seems like a euphemism for powerlessness – “under scrutiny” speaks to scientific and literary attention, but also to a kind of societal paralysis in the face of tremendous, and terrifying, global trends. Our successes are incremental, incomplete, and qualified, and yet the search for scientific truth and poetic beauty continue. Should we despair because of our inability to discover the kind of sky-opening revelations that will propel the world to change? Or do we keep collecting specimens?

Eric Pankey, “Ash”

Crow-Work_RGB_Overlay

 

Religious poetry was probably the first kind of poetry, but that doesn’t make it easy to write. What impresses me about this poem is how it is unafraid to draw from various traditions and approaches in a small space, while confronting a religious difficulty that is both ancient and very contemporary.

 

Ash

 

At the threshold of the divine, how to know

But indirectly, to hear the static as

Pattern, to hear the rough-edged white noise as song—

 

Wait, not as song – but to intuit the songbird

Within the thorn thicket, safe, hidden there.

Every moment is not a time for song

 

or singing. Imagine a Buddha, handmade,

Four meters high of compacted ash, the ash

Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.

 

With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates.

With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.

To face it, we efface it with our presence.

 

An infant will often turn away as if

Not to see is the same as not being seen.

There was fire, but God was not the fire.

 

— from Crow-Work, by Eric Pankey (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Eric Pankey. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org

 

We start “on the threshold of the divine” – that is, near something mysterious, revelatory, but not in it or on it or whatever. The first sentence of the poem is abstract, and at first the poet might seem to be wondering about how to get over that threshold, but that’s not it. Instead he wants to learn “how to know / But indirectly.” In a sense the desire he’s articulating is about living comfortably on the threshold, to have his ear pricked to what’s happening over it. As Pankey zeroes in on this idea he’s able to find metaphors to approach it – the static, and then the songbird. There are problems in both, though: hearing “the static as pattern,” for example, would be an illusion, finding meaning or intention in a phenomenon that actually has none. (An atheist’s accusation of the foolishness of a believer is that she sees a pattern in static.) On the other hand, Pankey’s form of belief isn’t quite ready to proclaim an actual bird singing in the thicket (“Wait – not as song”), but only the possibility of intuiting a hidden presence there. Pankey’s language is exploratory, tentative, careful – there are so many obstacles to portraying genuine religious experience and he seems to be trying to navigate between the obvious pitfalls.

One of those pitfalls is simply focusing attention on a sensation that is supposed to function outside of articulate thought. By writing the poem at all, Pankey is gesturing toward feelings that defy or transcend language, and so his next step, the most vivid image of the poem and the one that takes up the most space here, is about how our very conscious presence precludes the possibility of pure revelation.

The image of the crumbling ash Buddha evokes a few things for me. First, Pankey is referring specifically to the work of artist Zhang Huan, who constructed an Ash Buddha at the Sidney Festival in early 2015, and has done similar work elsewhere. (You can see his Sidney Ash Buddha being unmasked here, and another more recent installation in Macau here.) One essential aspect of the work is that it disintegrates over time, partly because of the presence of the people who view it. Another is that the ash itself is gathered from the remnants of others’ religious rituals (“Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer”), and so represents a kind of accumulation of hope.

The image of the disintegrating Buddha also seems connected to the “observer effect,” an idea in quantum mechanics that certain phenomenon are disturbed by any attempt to measure them. The familiar illustrative example is tire pressure – in order to measure tire pressure, you have to let a bit of air out of the tire, which slightly changes the very pressure you’re trying to measure. Contrary to our usual scientific practice, observation in these cases is an obstacle to understanding.

A similar notion has been present in poetry since the Romantics – the idea that we can’t describe transcendent feelings (religious, emotional, artistic, sexual, etc) and experience them at the same time. For Keats, the choice is to fall from the ecstasy of hearing the nightingale song in order to write his poem or, by submitting to it permanently, “become a sod.”

For Pankey the choice is to face the ash Buddha and accept that our presence will contribute to its disintegration, or to turn away and take it on trust that the Buddha still stands.  It’s worth noting that the first word of this description (starting on line 7) is “Imagine,” and it seems that, in the mind of this poem, as it was for the Romantics as well, imagination can be a facilitator, a bridge between conscious thought and transcendence.

 

I should mention that there’s a lovely light music here too, mostly based on un-rhymed alliterative pairings – static/pattern in lines 2-3, thorn/thicket in line 5, then whole/slowly, ash/shifts, and face/efface/presence later. It’s understated, a bit of not-song in the white noise.

If the ash Buddha image seems to encourage a lingering, attentive turning away from the divine, the penultimate lines point to its inverse, an immature kind of turning away. The infant who believes that “Not to see is the same as not being seen” is clearly mistaken, and Pankey seems to imply that those of us who turn away from the possibility of spiritual transcendence are doing the same thing. Not everyone would agree, perhaps, but I like Pankey’s willingness to allow a bit of the affectionate admonishing preacher to make an appearance here.

Last point: to my mind the biggest obstacle to writing about religious experience is the massive amount of texts, histories, and arguments that have already traveled there. We probably don’t wish to adhere too closely to ideas that are antiquated, but we also don’t want to dismiss our predecessors just because our cellphones have better resolution. Pankey takes this challenge head on at the end of “Ash,” drawing forth one more important origin text.

“God was not the fire” circles back to how the ash in Huang’s Buddha was created, but is also a reference to First Kings chapter 19, in which the prophet Elijah has a vision. It’s worth quoting a bit from verses 11-12: “And behold God passed by, and a great strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

Notice how much more time the biblical authors spend talking about what isn’t God. The wind and the earthquake and the fire – such things are vividly evoked, but they are not where God can be found. Even the final phrase stops just short of pointing at God’s presence. The “still small voice” is clearly intended to be seen as where “God is,” but refrains from explicitly declaring it.

Why do I mention all of this? This whole poem has been circling around our struggles to connect with transcendence, to encounter God, and despite numerous near-misses we still end up where “God was not.” Buddha and the God of the Hebrew Bible have made their appearances, as have Romanticism, quantum physics, and child psychology. But the God that Eric Pankey is looking for isn’t in the Buddha, but rather in the disintegrating ash. Not the bearded patriarchal God that reaches for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the space between the fingers. Not in any vision, but in our periphery, as we turn away, pretending not to see.

“Ash” is about the search for God, about trying to be open to an encounter with the divine, despite its inherent, tantalizing ephemerality. What I love about this poem is that it is willing to live in its uncertainty, in fact to articulate that uncertainty, that longing for something just beyond our reach, freighted with conflicting traditions and frustrations, and yet still propelling us toward a higher sense of ourselves and the world.

Ali Blythe, “Shattered”

twoism cover

The thing I like best about this poem is how it changes as I read it, so I don’t want to say anything as a prologue, except I already have by telling you that I love how this poem changes as I read it.

“Shattered”

 

Your eyes look like

beach glass fresh

from a pounding.

 

I wish I could float

you inside an empty

bottle and raise your

 

many tiny sails.

But one has to accept

the tense of a feeling.

 

You will never be

well enough again

to exist on anything

 

but a diet of thin ice.

You will recurrently

have the sense someone

 

is checking the time,

which you suspect

might be suspended

 

from nurse-clean clouds

by a delicate gold chain.

You will have to drink

 

meds from a plastic

cup. Next, you won’t

remember a thing.

 

— from Twoism, (Icehouse Press 2015) ©Ali Blythe, used by permission

 

When I started reading this, I thought it was a love poem, not an unreasonable first response when it opens with a simile about eyes. Even when Blythe undercuts the potential romanticism with “fresh / from a pounding,” I’m not sure where he’s going – it could be a brutal sexual reference, or a bit of tonal misdirection. But I’m also aware, as I’m sure you are, that when sea glass is sufficiently “pounded” it ends up smooth and almost soft to the touch, and its colour washes out. So after the first stanza, my imagination is holding these possibilities in suspension, waiting to see where the poem is headed.

The second stanza doesn’t exactly help, but rather introduces an even more elaborate metaphor: “I wish I could float / you inside an empty / bottle and raise your // many tiny sails.” It’s a wonderfully evocative image, but I’m still not sure what it signifies – something about how the speaker wishes he could open the addressee’s full potential? Then why the boat inside a bottle? Does the speaker think of his friend as constrained in some way? Or is this something about preservation? We’re going to find out in a second, but before Blythe clarifies it all, I want to pause a moment to appreciate how, by structuring the poem with these images – the sea glass and the bottle-boat – at the beginning, before the situation is explained, Blythe gives us a chance to bounce all sorts of possibilities in our minds first. For me, that’s a major pleasure, but these decisions also add to a mood of confusion, or of being off-balance, that hovers over the rest of the poem, even once the circumstances are made more clear.

Oh, and one more: what is the “tense of a feeling” that “one needs to accept”? Are all feelings only in the present tense? Can you have future feelings?

By the fourth stanza, then, a reader could be forgiven for being almost ready to give up on “Shattered” as too esoteric or self-referential, using imagery that only has meaning to the speaker. This is when Blythe pivots, at the exact centre, and things start to come rapidly into focus. Notice how flat and prosy the language of the next sentence is – “never be / well enough again / to exist…” almost sounds like a doctor’s awkward formality, the line breaks slowing us down even more, although the images from the first stanzas perhaps continue to leave a bit of a residual shimmer.

So now we know that the speaker is visiting a dying friend or loved one. Suddenly my understanding of the sea glass from the first stanza zeroes in on the faded colouring, and the “pounding” from that opening sentence seems to refer more to disease (or perhaps its treatment) than to any of the other possibilities I was toying with. The boat bottle might have something to do with suspending time rather than other kinds of entrapment. And the “tense of a feeling” – well, I’m still not 100% sure about that one, except that even grammatical “tense” is now painful to the speaker because he knows that his loved one has no future.

Once we’re on surer footing with regard to the “plot” of the poem, Blythe can go back to the image-making at which he excels. The speaker ventures into the mind of his companion, who senses those around her “checking the time.” The image resonates because the patient must be acutely aware of when her visitors are preparing to depart her bedside, but also of the more ominous ticking down of her own life’s clock.

By the way, I’m using a feminine pronoun for the patient and a masculine one for the speaker/visitor just for clarity – there’s no indication of gender or even of the exact relationship between the two figures. This kind of ambiguity works in a short poem, but for readers of fiction it can be a bit frustrating – we’re almost always aware, when reading a story, about the relationship between characters. But in a poem we sometimes only get “the tense of a feeling,” stripped down to its bare bones. Because Blythe doesn’t have time to explore the complications of the relationship here, he leaves it out. We only have images and impressions. (In fact other poems in twoism explore angles on loss that I believe are connected to this one, and that form a composite from which we can extrapolate a bit more, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

As the poem makes its final turns, the sentences take on a parallel structure (You will … You will … You will…you won’t), but they also get shorter and shorter, with ominous connotations. Also, the flight of fancy with which our speaker enters into his friend’s imagination (time suspended from “nurse-clean clouds” by a “delicate gold chain” could be a medically-induced hallucination) quickly shrinks down to the narrowest of perspectives (“drink // meds from a plastic cup”) until at the close of the poem she vanishes altogether.

A clever grammatical move here is that these last four sentences are all in future tense – you will, you will – but they point toward a future that doesn’t contain the friend at all. The final reference to remembering is a painful act of separation – only the speaker will be able to look back at these moments he has described. His friend will be part of the past he is now remembering.

This realization is what connects the glass images at the opening of the poem to the circumstances the poem describes, and also to the title which unites them: “shattered” describes glass that can never be put together again, but “shattered” is also a feeling, in the irretrievable present tense. I return to the beginning of the poem as if revisiting the moment when the shattering begins.

 

Sara Holland-Batt, “Botany”

S HBatt Hazards cover

 

Before I begin I should mention that this is Griffin Prize Week. Last night was the shortlist readings at Koerner Hall in Toronto, and tonight the winners will be announced. It’s fun to be back on the audience side of the curtain, without the pressures and stress I had last year. But I also admit to a bit of nostalgia (already?) for my experiences as a juror, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which gave rise to this blog. I’m still open to discussions about the problematics of poetry prizes, or of “prize culture” in literary evaluation, but these events are among the highlights of my year, if only because the rooms are full of serious (and often brilliant) minds, who are palpably engaged with the art form, stretching always what poetry can be and do.

Sarah Holland-Batt is an Australian poet who has spent considerable time in the United States. If I had the gumption I might try to make claims about how her work straddles the poetic traditions of both nations, but it seems a bit premature – the poem below is from only her second book, The Hazards, and so I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from her before these kinds of evaluations become worthwhile. One thing I will say is that she, like many other Australian poets I’ve read, derives real delight from the natural world of her homeland, a world which often seems to me to be more beautiful, dangerous, and bizarre than my own.

 

“Botany”

 

After the rain, we went out in pairs

to hunt the caps that budded at night:

wet handfuls of waxtips and widows,

lawyer’s wigs, a double-ringed yellow.

 

We shook them out onto gridded sheets,

the girls more careful than the boys,

pencilled notes on their size and shape,

then levelled a wood-press over their heads.

 

Overnight, they dropped scatter patterns

in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks

that stained the page with smoky rings,

blush and blot, coal-dust blooms.

 

In that slow black snow of spores

I saw a woodcut winter cart and horse

careen off course, the dull crash

of iron and ash, wheels unraveling.

 

All day, a smell of loam hung overhead.

We bent like clairvoyants at our desks

trying to divine the message left

in all those little deaths, the dark, childless stars.

 

— from The Hazards, ©Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press, 2015), used by permission

How do we translate wonder onto the page? We all experience awe from time to time when we encounter amazing things in the natural world – a spectacular sunset, a bear rummaging in a wood, a tornado – but writing about those encounters rarely summons corresponding feelings in the reader. In fact I think it’s fair to say that, after the love poem, the ”nature poem” is the type most frequently done badly. Not just because it’s such well-trodden ground, but also because, like love, awe is a very difficult feeling to evoke or describe.

“Botany” tackles this problem in two ways. Firstly Sarah Holland-Batt has a wonderful ear, and her alliterative play, near-rhymes, and metrical savvy combine to give this poem real brightness and sparkle. The beginning of the third stanza is particularly rich: “dropped scatter patterns / in dot-and-dash, spindles and asterisks” just feels fun in my mouth as I say it, the percussive s’s, p’s, k’s, and t’s bouncing off each other. And so even though the natural phenomena that she is describing – mushrooms – don’t make a lot of noise (to my knowledge!), “Botany” translates some of their uniqueness into linguistic beauty, which we experience as sound.

One quick note about meter. This poem gestures toward a regular rhythmic pattern but never settles into it consistently. Many of the lines at the beginning are in a loose iambic tetrameter (four beats per line) and a few fit it perfectly: line six, for example (“the GIRLS more CAREful THAN the BOYS”), as well as lines eleven and thirteen. For me, when a poet flirts with regular meter like this, it gives a kind of pulse to the poem, but one that is open to movement and flow. It provides a steady walking pace that can accommodate the occasional stumble or brief sprint. It’s worth noting, then, that as the poet’s fascination increases at the end, the poem adds another foot to the meter, so that in the last stanza we’re mostly five beats to the line and the final line has six beats. It’s as if, when the children’s attention draws closer to the spore patterns, the speaker of the poem needs to cram more stress into each line to make room for her awe.

Can we also, by the way, thank the botanist who originally named a species of mushroom “lawyer’s wig”? Can that person please be honoured in some public fashion?

Coprinus_comatus,_the_shaggy_ink_cap,_lawyer's_wig,_or_shaggy_mane_mushroom

The other way that Holland-Batt evokes our wonder is by not limiting herself to the children’s perspective, despite the school-time focus of the action. The evocative species names, the brief gesture towards gender politics (“the girls more careful than the boys”), the magic of the mushrooms’ reaction under the wood-press – all of these are phenomena that most children would appreciate and understand. But something different happens in the fourth stanza. The mushrooms have made various spore patterns on the paper the students have spread under them, and the speaker starts to see images in the shapes that have been created by the “slow black snow of spores” (another wonderful lyric line). The speaker sees something wild and horrific in the spore dust: a crashing horse-and-cart. Is this really the imagination of a child looking at the patterns, or an adult drawing pictures in her memory? Perhaps the girl had just read Black Beauty? But it feels more like we are progressing from the experience of the school children to the more mature wonder of the image-making adult.

Similarly, and more definitively, in the final stanza, the kids become “clairvoyants” (even the word would likely be inaccessible to most school children) who are attempting to interpret the signs left by the mushrooms. And the poet brings to our attention the fact that the spores, because they have been deposited on paper instead of earth, won’t be able to germinate, and are therefore a display of “little deaths” for the individual mushrooms that have been harvested. Now I don’t think the speaker of the poem is trying to evoke regret in us for the demise of these fine fungi specimens. On the contrary, it seems to me that the fragility, the strangeness, and the resilience of earth’s life forms (from dust…) is what transforms the children’s awe into something that we adults might share. By leaving us with that weird bit of darkness, drummed home with the haunting final adjective “childless,” this poem opens up a layer that is beyond the reach of the students in the poem, but which is palpable and full of awe for those of us who read it.

 

Marilyn Dumont, “How to Make Pemmican”

Pemmican Eaters Cover

 

I’ve already written on a “recipe” poem in this series, back in the beginning of February when I focused on Phil Metres’ “Recipe from the Abbasid.” As I mentioned then, there’s something I like about how a “how to” poem forces us to be deliberate and specific in our writing. Also, the imperative voice used in a recipe (do this, do that) stands in fruitful contrast to most other kinds of poems.

But it’s never enough simply to reproduce a recipe or instruction and call it a poem – there needs to be some sort of tension added to the directions. In Metres’ poem, historical-political information is blended into the recipe to produce a surreal monstrosity of a meal. In Marilyn Dumont’s “How to Make Pemmican,” the tension is… well wait a second. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marilyn Dumont traces her ancestry to Gabriel Dumont, one of the central figures (along with Louis Riel) who resisted Canadian authority in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the late 1800s, just after Canadian Confederation. The Pemmican Eaters explores aspects of Cree and Métis culture, retells episodes from the Riel and North-West Resistances, and challenges textbook versions of the history of western Canada. Apparently the title comes from a term then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald used to refer to the Métis who were giving him so much trouble, but it seems to be a moniker that Dumont wants to reclaim. There’s lots to learn about this period in Canadian history and I am a novice here myself, but in addition to Dumont’s book, you might start here or here. (I will be happy to link to better sources online if anyone wants to call them to my attention.) I should also mention that it’s a bit unfair to look at this poem on its own, out of context from the rest of Dumont’s book. Like my discussion of Metres’ “Recipe for the Abbasid,” this essay only gives a narrow glimpse into what’s going on in this wide-ranging and ambitious collection. But I hope it might serve as a doorway in.

Pemmican (from the Cree word for fat or grease) is a protein-rich combination of fat, dried beef (usually buffalo) and berries which, because it is portable and doesn’t spoil, was an important source of protein for travelling trappers and hunters in the nineteenth century (and for native peoples much earlier). Nowadays it’s championed by a wide range of enthusiasts beyond its Cree and Métis origins, including wilderness campers, Canadian history buffs, and some spookier sites like “Off the Grid News” and “Urban Survival Site: How to Survive in the City When Disaster Strikes.” I’ll refrain from providing you all of these links, but you can find them on your own if you’re curious.

All this goes to show that even a “simple” recipe for pemmican carries a lot of baggage with it. So to the poem:

 

How to Make Pemmican

 

Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo

Gut it

Skin it

Butcher it

Slice the meat in long strips for drying

Construct drying racks and lay on tarps for pounding

Pound 1000 lbs. of dry meat

Mix with several pounds of dried berries, picked previously

Add rendered suet

 

Cut buffalo hides in quarters

Fill with hot dried meat, berry and suet mixture

Sew quarter-hide portions together with sinew

Bury in a cache for later   mmmh.

 

            — from The Pemmican Eaters (©Marilyn Dumont, Published by ECW Press, 2015), used by permission

 

On the surface, there is nothing particularly attention-grabbing here. The language of the poem is straight-forward, the lines clear despite minimal punctuation. Unlike Metres “Recipe from the Abbasid,” which spins off quickly into the bizarre, this one stays on task. One is tempted to blithely say to oneself, “With these instructions I could probably make pemmican too.”

Except that you can’t, because what’s missing is everything – every line only leads to more questions. “Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo.” How exactly does one set about doing that? Even an outdoorsman with a lot more experience than myself might be hard-pressed to bag the type of animal Dumont so flippantly starts off with here. And if we somehow manage to kill one, how are we to gut, skin, and butcher it?! Perhaps I’m revealing myself to be a city mouse without much worldly knowledge, but I suspect that the majority of poetry readers likely fit a similar profile to myself when it comes to buffalo butchering. So even the opening lines of this recipe become a way to let us know that we’re not going to learn how to make pemmican after reading a one-page poem. There’s a lot more to learn before we can even really begin.

This tone continues, with more slyly simple-sounding directions that open up further questions and challenges. What sort of drying racks hold 1000 lbs. of buffalo? How might one construct them? How does one pound that much meat? How does one render suet?!

All of this makes this short poem less of a recipe and more of a table of contents for a series of recipes and instructions. Because pemmican is so closely associated with the Métis, especially during the period with which this book is concerned, the implication is that we must understand pemmican in order to access the most basic aspects of Métis culture. However, obtaining that knowledge is going to require a lot more work than we might have previously thought. A reader might wonder to herself, If I can’t even imagine the taste of this staple food, how can I possibly get inside the culture of the people who developed it?

On the other hand, you don’t have to know how to make pasta from scratch to appreciate it. Ditto gefilte fish, tofu, or apple crumble. There’s ultimately, then, an element of invitation here as well. To my ear, the speaker in this poem is saying, You know almost nothing about what pemmican is, but if you try harder, keep asking good questions, and then listen, you might be able find someone to show you. This poem is only the beginning. Partly I’m importing this tone from other parts of the book, but the assured voice here seems to indicate that if the next poem in the book were titled “How to Kill a Buffalo” (it’s not), Dumont could list a series of similarly vexing, simple-sounding instructions that would lead us further in our study. I think of this mixture of rejection and invitation as one of the particular strengths of The Pemmican Eaters.

This is why that final “mmmh” at the end of the poem isn’t just a throwaway line, or a taunt. It is a taunt, but it isn’t only a taunt.

Quick explanatory tangent: My wife likes to watch cooking shows – Chopped, Iron Chef, that Chef’s Table show on Netflix that makes chefs look like the most fascinating and important people on earth. I admit I have very little patience for these shows, not because the people they profile aren’t interesting, but because we never get to eat the beautiful food we are seeing. When we watch The Voice or American Idol, we can hear the emerging virtuosity of the singers. When (if) you watch Dancing with the Stars, the proof is in the performance, and if you know anything about dancing you can judge and (perhaps) appreciate a contestant’s success right there on the stage. But there’s always something crucial missing from the experience of these cooking shows. Maybe that’s part of the appeal for my wife, leaving the final results up to the gustatory imagination. The “mmmh” at the end of this poem is a similar kind of tease. The speaker is letting us know that she knows the taste of pemmican, that she finds it delicious, that it’s worthy of a hum of satisfaction for her. Those of us who have never tasted pemmican can’t fully access the whole range of experiences, stories, beliefs, and cultural nuances that The Pemmican Eaters explores. However, it’s also a promise that the rest of the book attempts to make good on: if you’d like to know more, read on. By pushing me away (you know nothing about this), it also invites me in (come learn more). So in the end this poem/recipe is about confronting our ignorance. There’s a challenge in it, and it requires a certain amount of humility to accept that challenge. But the rewards promise to be very tasty.